Charles Foulkes – and the story of an Archives intern

My name is Torunn Sørlie and I am an MA student at King’s College London, working towards completing a degree in World History and Cultures. I am originally from Norway, though I have resided in the UK for the past five years. Before coming to King’s, I completed an MA Joint Honours in History and Film/TV at the University of Glasgow, and then spent a year working as a social researcher in London. My main areas of interest include colonial history, gender history – often looking at the intersection between the two – and the role of visual media in conceptualising and reconceptualising reality. I have been working as an intern for KCL Archives for the past three months, looking at the photographs from the Charles Foulkes collection and specifically exploring its colonial aspects.

Charles Foulkes (1875-1965) was a multifaceted man to say the least. Between participating in British Imperial expansion, working as an engineer and gas specialist during World War I, and working as Director of Irish Propaganda, he was also doing body building, winning Olympic medals, and driving motorcycles around the English countryside. We know this because he was also a passionate photographer, who recorded his life through photographs – and later through his own autobiographical writing. A Scotsman, born in India, commissioned into the Royal Engineers of the British Army at age 19, and serving across the British Empire, Foulkes was in many ways the personification of the transition between Imperial and post-Imperial Britain.

In these pandemic times, distance is key, and so I have not actually been to the archive. Instead, I have been working from home with the digitised part of the Charles Foulkes collection. Because of this, my experience has probably been very different from previous years. I have only been able to access the digitised parts of the archive, all my meetings with Archives staff have been on Teams, and I am now preparing to do a presentation for Shoe Lane Library over Zoom – the platform most of us had used maybe once before March 2020.

Figure 1: An intern at work – Virtual meetings

As an intern my main task has been to create an online exhibition using the material from the collection. Under normal circumstances, I would have planned and delivered a physical and in-person exhibition too. However, doing this only online has given me the opportunity to reflect more on challenges that archives face moving into the digital age. It has made me think a lot more about the future of archives; especially considering the increase in digitised collections and online access to archival material. While my anarchist heart is vying for the day where open online access is the norm, I can at the same time see the massive hurdles that still need to be cleared in order for the digital-archive-utopia of my dreams to become a reality. I am therefore appreciative of the freedom that KCL Archives has given me to explore and exhibit the collection with next-to-no restrictions on the material that I could use. At the same time, an online exhibition brought with it new considerations and challenges, including discussions about how to ensure that copyright is upheld and the potential of sensitive material appearing online out of context.

It has also been an opportunity for me to be creative and experiment with different modes of exhibiting archival material. I have been able to better control the flow and rhythm of the exhibition, which you have little control over in an open physical space. I also hope that, as it is online, more people will find the exhibition accessible – and that it is a personal experience that makes each viewer reflect on the images and ideas they have encountered through their screens.

Figure 2: An intern at work – My personal archive room

The internship has also allowed me, for a brief moment, to step out of academia and into the realm of public history. It has taught me a lot about how to communicate complex ideas and concepts in history without putting your audience to sleep – something I think all historians should learn how to do – and I have gained valuable skills that will hopefully make me a much more approachable historian and party guest (you know, once parties are allowed again).

Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, I have enjoyed myself immensely – and I am also really happy with the output that I have been able to produce. I hope that people will use this exhibition as a jumping-off point to inform their own thinking about the various themes that can be explored through colonial archives. You can find my online exhibition on the colonial photography of Charles Foulkes here.

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